Children's rights 'being systematically breached'

Poverty, abuse and a harsh criminal justice system mean Government is failing in its legal obligations to the young, charities warn

England is "systematically" breaching international human rights laws protecting children, according to a damning new report released by a coalition of Britain's biggest children's charities to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The use of Asbos to name and shame teenagers, the Government's failure to prevent parents from beating children, and an increase in the number of children living in poverty are just some of the ways in which the rights of young people are being undermined, according to the report on the state of children's rights in England to be published on Friday.

More than 130 children have been threatened or shot with Tasers since they were issued to police in 2007. Thousands of children, some as young as 12, are imprisoned each year. And, in London alone, more than 2,000 under-15s were stopped and searched under anti -terror laws last year.

The findings are in sharp contrast to the Government's pledge to make the country "the best place in the world for children to grow up". The Children's Rights Alliance for England (Crae) – a coalition of more than 250 organisations including Save the Children, Unicef and the NSPCC – is calling for the UN convention to be adopted in law so that children's rights can be properly upheld.

Mike Lindsay, Crae's national co-ordinator, said: "The Government is breaching directly and systematically several important rights for children. The areas where we continue to do most wrong by our children – for example in criminal justice, equality, media reporting, asylum-seeking and child abuse – are those where, as a society, we have clearly failed to give sufficient regard and emphasis to children's human rights."

The life prospects of children – particularly those who are refugees, in detention or living in poverty – are being made worse by the lack of protection of their basic human rights, according to the report.

There are an estimated four million children living in poverty, with the Government likely to miss its target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eliminating it by 2020.

Commenting on the report, a spokesperson for the charity Save the Children said: "The huge level of child poverty is one of the most severe and ongoing violations of children's rights in the UK." The civil rights organisation Liberty said Britain is a "less friendly place to be a child in 2009 than in years gone by. If we are to be measured on the treatment of the most vulnerable in society, then our current record must bring shame on us all."

Past governments have deliberately ignored children's rights, said Mr Lindsay: "Governments have chosen to set their face against international obligations on children's rights in favour of political rhetoric and expediency. We've got it now with the Tories declaring war on youth and Labour trying to match them with their intention of getting tough through Asbos."

Children continue to be sent to prison far too readily and for longer than necessary, and are still subject to controversial forms of restraint, campaigners say. Although sending children to prison is supposed to be a last resort, England and Wales have one of the highest child custody populations in the Western world, standing at an average of 2,932 in 2007-08, it says.

And despite an independent inquiry in 2008 recommending a reduction in the use of physical force to control children, cases have risen by 25 per cent in young offenders' institutions, with restraint used 4,274 times in the year to March 2009 – an "unacceptably high" figure according to the report.

Frances Crook, the director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "Locking troubled children up in prisons is inhumane and shameful. It is time to rethink and restructure the way we deal with our most troubled and challenging young people."

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "Research tells us the majority of children are happy, healthy and able to achieve their potential. But we know this is not the case for every young person, and we are working to ensure that all children have access to the support and opportunities they need."

Equality: Girls and boys share the same ambitions

Girls and boys are ignoring the gender prescriptions of previous generations and having exactly the same ambitions, according to new research that suggests true gender equality could become a reality within a generation.

Girls are as likely as boys to see themselves supporting families, and boys are as likely as girls to regard marriage and child-rearing as a significant part of their lives, researchers found after talking to 845 schoolchildren aged 11 or 12.

Professor Paul Croll, from the Institute of Education at the University of Reading, said: "It is fascinating that there simply isn't any gender stereotyping for this generation. When girls talk about wanting a job, it is so they can provide for their families. They don't see that as the husband's role."

The government-funded study also found that more schoolchildren, including those from disadvantaged families, were considering the possibility of higher education, with only one in five children intending to leave school at 16.

Susie Mesure

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